Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Peony Lantern, New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts


Original Japanese woodblock print. 

Artist: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892)
Title: 27. Botan Doro (The Peony Lantern)
Series: New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts
Publisher: Sasaki Toyokichi
Date: 1891


Tsuyu was the daughter of a samurai. One day, she meets Shinzaburo, a handsome young man whom she falls in love with. Unable to see each other for a few months, Shinzaburo is horrified to hear that Tsuyu and her maidservant, Yone, had died from longing. On the evening of the Bon Festival of the Dead, two young ladies pass by his house carrying a beautiful lantern decorated with peony flowers. Shinzaburo instantly recognizes the ladies as his lover and her maid. He invites them in and they explain that the reason why they couldn’t see each other anymore was because Tsuyu was told he had passed away.


Suspicious of the ladies, Shinzaburo’s servant spies on his master every night and is terrified to discover that he is talking to..two skeletons. The servant goes to a priest who in turn warns Shinzaburo of the danger that awaits him: if he doesn’t stop seeing Tsuyu, he will meet his end as well. Shinzaburo, however, pays no heed and is found dead one morning, entwined with the bones of a young woman.


The sight of that particular peony lantern gleaming on the porch was all it took for his skin to crawl. They had come again: the two apparitions that paraded in front of his master’s house under the guise of Tsuyu and her maidservant. Months ago, Tsuyu was just a samurai’s daughter whom his master Shinzaburo had fallen in love with till her recent passing but now, from within the cracks of sliding panels and basked in candle light, a skeleton was pouring tea for his oblivious master. The priest had warned the servant against them and he, too, had let his master know but without fruition; his master would not see the truth. He would be discovered dead the next morning entwined with a female skeleton.

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading woodblock print artists during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and one of the last to work in the traditional ukiyo-e manner. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he showed a strong interest in classical Japanese literature and history. When he was 11, he became a student at Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s studio. Under his teacher’s guidance, he showed exquisite draftsmanship and learned how to draw from life, something not necessarily part of the training schools of painting and illustration in Japan.

Yoshitoshi’s rise as an artist came at a time when Japan was faced with great changes and challenges. The new Meiji era (1868-1912) brought many conflicts between those loyal to tradition and those wishing to embark on a process of forced modernisation and adoption of western values. These sentiments, along with having witnessed some of the violent uprisings, influenced his early career, with intense, often disturbing images that reflect turmoil and pain. Even so, many other prints from this early period show whimsical touches, with reinterpretation of themes seen in his teacher Kuniyoshi’s works. With deep cultural roots, Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: he was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. He worked on series depicting kabuki actors, bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), warriors, monsters and ghosts. Supernatural themes abound in his later work, showing a fascination for old Japanese folk stories.

The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular series 'One Hundred Aspects of the Moon' commenced in 1885 and spanned a wide variety of subjects, such as warrior, animals, ghosts, natural phenomena, beauties and others. The artist’s early tendency for gore and horror was replaced by images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. 'Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners', published in 1888, shows Yoshitoshi’s ability to portray emotions like no other artist of his time, presenting women of various background and eras in Japanese history, each with distinct traits.

In 1889, the series 'New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts' started to be published, showing images of apparitions, mostly based on folklore and plays, depicted powerfully and imaginatively. This was, perhaps, a catharsis for the artist who claimed to have seen ghosts and strongly believed in supernatural beings. Many of Yoshitoshi’s late works were acclaimed at a time when western techniques of mass production such as photography were making the woodblock obsolete, breaking new ground by portraying intense human feelings through a traditional medium. He became a master teacher and had notable pupils such as Toshikata Mizuno and Toshihide Migita.

More Information
Print FormatOban (Vertical)
ArtistYoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)
SubjectBeauty & Female, Ghosts & Religion
SeriesNew Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts::Yoshitoshi Tsukioka
publisherSasaki Toyokichi:1885-1898